Key words: Risk communication; governmentality; field/habitus; dialogue; sender/receiver

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The Constitution of Risk Communication in Advanced Liberal Societies

Publication details:

Wardman, J. K. (2008) The Constitution of Risk Communication in Advanced Liberal Societies, Risk Analysis, 28(6): 1619-37

The definitive version is available at:

Author details:

Jamie K. Wardman

School of Psychology

Faculty of Health, Life and Social Sciences

University of Lincoln

Brayford Pool

Lincoln, LN67TS



The author is grateful to Ragnar Lofstedt and David Demeritt for comments on an earlier draft of this article.


This article aims to bring to the fore some of the underlying rationales that inform common conceptions of the constitution of risk communication in academic and policy communities. ‘Normative’, ‘instrumental’ and ‘substantive’ imperatives typically employed in the utilisation of risk communication are first outlined. In light of these considerations a theoretical scheme is subsequently devised leading to the articulation of four fundamental ‘idealised’ models of risk communication termed the ‘risk message’ model, the ‘risk dialogue’ model, the ‘risk field’ model and the ‘risk government’ model respectively. It is contended that the diverse conceptual foundations underlying the orientation of each model suggest a further need for a more contextualised view of risk communication that takes account not only of the strengths and limitations of different formulations and functions of risk communication, but also the underlying knowledge/power dynamics that underlie its constitution. In particular it is hoped that the reflexive theoretical understanding presented here will help to bring some much needed conceptual clarity to academic and policy discourses about the use and utility of risk communication in advanced liberal societies.

Key words: Risk communication; governmentality; field/habitus; dialogue; sender/receiver

1. Introduction

Risk communication has become increasingly prevalent as an area of academic research, with one recent review accounting for 349 risk communication articles published within the environmental and technological risk fields alone between 1988 and 2000 (Gurabardhi et al 2004; Gurabardhi 2005). A literature search recently conducted on behalf of the UK Government Inter-Departmental Liason Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA 2002) claimed to have revealed over 1000 English language publications on risk communication in the 10 years prior to the review, providing further indication that the risk communication field is clearly a vast and rapidly growing area. Whilst some academics have attempted to trace some qualitative aspects of the development of risk communication over the past thirty years or so pointing to how best practice has evolved for example (for useful reviews see: Fischhoff 1995; Gurabardhi et al 2004; Gurabardhi 2005; Krimpsky date; Leiss 1996; Lofstedt 2005; National Research Council 1989; McComas 2006; Palenchar and Heath 2007), others have also noted the systematic embedding of risk communication in regulation and corporate governance (see for example: Gouldson et al. 2007; Hood et al. 2001; Lofstedt 2005; Power 2004; Rothstein et al. 2006). The quantitative expansion of formalised interest in risk communication is particularly made apparent by the broad distribution of national and international agencies that have increasingly documented and advised on the requirement for risk communication, as well as its role within their own organisations and for others (see for example: European Food Safety Authority 2006; ILGRA 2002; ISO 2002; OECD 2002; UK Government Cabinet Office Strategy Unit 2002; US National Research Council 1989; World Health Organisation 2002). However, despite the apparent evolution and popularisation of formal approaches to risk communication opinion can be said to be divided over its purpose and suitability. On the one hand it would seem that many academics, public health practitioners, industry consultants and policymakers amongst others variously find intrinsic appeal to the notion of risk communication and see ever broadening possibilities for its potential application. For example, an influential report for the US National Research Council (1989) identified that growth in government interest in risk communication has been driven by such diverse motivations as the requirement and desire to inform, to overcome opposition to decisions, to share power, and to seek alternatives to direct regulatory control. In turn, the day-to-day provision of risk communication would appear to be seen by many advocates as encompassing a wide variety of modes and formats, which on the face of it are to a varying degree seemingly facilitative of meeting these objective concerns.

On the other hand, the application of risk communication has also faced strong criticism that it may be adopted quite restrictively and as such be easily dismissed as amounting to no more than simply a form of ‘PR’ or ‘spin’. According to Jasanoff (cited in Morgan and Lave 1990) many officials seem to regard risk communication as a codeword for ‘brainwashing’ for example. Nelkin (2002) has likewise observed that risk communicators have frequently presented exaggerated claims about the pros of adopting new technology verses the negative consequences of failing to do so as a strategic ploy to help resolve risk conflicts. Nelkin also further notes that in such disputes public and stakeholder concerns can often become reduced to technical questions to be answered by recourse to ‘better’ science alone; if any residual fears still remain it is through information conveyed via risk communication that a resolution is to be found. Risk communication has therefore arguably been marked by its utilisation for perpetuating beliefs that new technologies are unequivocally beneficial rather than for more noble goals such as encouraging the public debate about their possible adoption and use. Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden (2007) have similarly questioned whether traditional forms of risk communication have evolved sufficiently to accommodate broader social values, implications and visions for the future that have been emphasised in recent trends towards ‘upstream engagement’ about new technologies.

In light of these criticisms it does seem reasonable to question how far the rhetoric and ideas of risk communication actually translate into socially valued communicative action or whether indeed they were ever intended to do so. But furthermore, even when risk communication has been implemented in good faith and according to plan, it seems that the possibility for ‘effective’ risk communication is far from certain and that in some instances it may in fact do more harm than good (Fischhoff 1995; Lofstedt 2005). These reservations about the ‘reality’ of risk communication in practice therefore raise fundamental questions about the very purpose of risk communication and how its use and utility might, in principle, be conceived. Yet, seemingly few attempts have been made to try to distil different academic and policy conceptualisations of risk communication and to integrate this knowledge in a coherent fashion. One notable problem, as McComas (2006) observes, is that whilst research on risk communication is diverse and multidisciplinary in nature, and thus draws from a well-rounded pool of knowledge and expertise, the field suffers from few integrative theoretical frameworks which makes it difficult to centralise or to capitalise on this knowledge (see also Bostrom and Lofstedt 2003; Lofstedt and 6 2008). Indeed, parsing the academic literatures across different disciplines it is not always made altogether clear how different theories and practices of risk communication are connected. Furthermore, whether in relation to science, health, politics, lifestyle, technology, or the environment, despite being ostensibly united by a shared language, different communities with a common interest in risk communication typically seem to talk past one another, perhaps being divided by their own particular outlooks, understandings and experiences (Horlick-Jones 2008).

All this has perhaps exacerbated the problem that the underlying beliefs commonly concerning the conceptualisation of risk communication processes and their outcomes are rarely acknowledged or subjected to proper rigour and scrutiny. Hence, as with much risk communication research, a growing number of often instructive reviews have instead generally maintained an atheoretical focus, with reviewers and researchers for the most part intent on highlighting the most important challenges facing the increasing number of agencies and organisations that suddenly find they have a risk communication problem. This has in turn led to the prescription of ‘best practice’ solutions to help address those particular risk communication problems. But, as has been similarly observed of other fields by Richardson (1996), the adoption of such ‘toolbox’ approaches arguably permits risk communicators, analysts and policymakers to ‘draw from a wide body of techniques without necessarily being aware that the techniques they adopt bear the imprints of broader scientific, political, economic or social theory [or that] …they are permeated by power/knowledge relations’ (p289). Consequently, the prevailing atheoretical understanding of the application of risk communication lends itself to confusion or the possible imposition of particular value frames which mask the effects of power and distort risk management and regulatory policy processes.

Against this critical backdrop the remainder of this article addresses the apparent theoretical lacuna concerning the constitution of risk communication as advocated and practiced in advanced liberal societies. I begin by first briefly outlining ‘normative’, ‘instrumental’ and ‘substantive’ imperatives for engaging in risk communication, as reflected for example in calls for greater public engagement in risk appraisal and decision making more generally (see Fiorino 1990; Stern and Fineberg 1996; Pidgeon 1998; Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007; Rowe and Frewer 2000; Stirling 2005). It is suggested that the practical orientation of risk communication around these imperatives is connected to more or less implicit assumptions not only of the purpose or function of risk communication, but also about how that purpose or function will be brought into effect. However, these assumptions are rarely fully articulated in terms of existing social and psychological theories of communication. What follows is a critical exposition of how the constitution of risk communication may be theorised in light of these objective concerns. By demarcating different interpretations of risk communication within an integrative theoretical account it is hoped that this will help to bring some conceptual clarity to academic and policy debates and empirical inquiry concerning common understandings, intentions, impacts and practices of risk communication.

2. Three imperatives for risk communication1

First characterised by Fiorino (1989; 1990), the ‘normative’ imperative for risk communication as it is adopted here stems from a process-based ethic which typically considers that risk communication is undertaken simply because it is ‘the right thing to do’ without particular reference to the ends or outcomes to which it may lead (see also Pidgeon and Rodgers-Hayden 2007). This view is guided by the belief that as there is a value dimension to risk, and citizens are the best judge and executers of their own interests, risk communication should raise people’s awareness of risk and enable citizens to be party to individual risk decisions that personally affect them and their communities (see Fiorino 1990; Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007; Stirling 2005). However, to the extent that risk communication is thought to be a valued end in and of itself the normative imperative can actually be seen to be informed by two democratic ideals. The first ideal centres on the obligation by actors, such as individuals, groups, business organisations or government agencies, in liberal democracies of Western politics to inform (Powell 2000). Operating on this basis risk communication may be orientated towards fulfilling such functions as the ‘public right-to-know’, ‘freedom of information’, ‘informed consent’ or ‘emergency preparedness’ through the disclosure of information about the risks of hazards to potential victims as well as behavioural advice and guidelines prior to or during acute risk situations and emergencies. The second ideal entails the view that citizens should be involved in risk communication allowing equal opportunity for representation and participation in debates about how risk is characterised and managed for example. Recent risk communication research has indicated and largely supported a general trend towards facilitating stakeholder involvement in deliberative dialogue to help characterise risk and set risk management priorities and policies which represent a cross-section of interests (Klinke and Renn 2002; Lofstedt 2005; Petts 2001; Stern and Fineberg 1996). From the normative perspective risk communication can therefore be seen as fulfilling two valued roles that are thought to represent the interests of the individual citizens of a society, but whereas the first implies risk communication is a process of experts speaking out to the public, the second implies the process of various publics speaking back to experts.

In contrast to the normative imperative, the instrumental imperative construes risk communication as a resource or means that may be employed by an individual, group or organisation to help them achieve the particular ends they seek. In this context risk communication has often been conceived essentially as a corporate survival mechanism that evolved in strategic adaptation to the external pressures placed on industry following such incidents as Bhopal (Chess 2001) and Chernobyl (Wynne 1989; 1992), the BSE or ‘mad cow’ crisis (Leiss 1996) and conflict over the dumping of the Brent Spar oil storage platform in the North Sea (Lofstedt and Renn 1997). The value of risk communication is therefore understood instrumentally in these respects according to how it might support the particular aims of an organisation faced with a potentially hostile environment in which different actors vie to realise their own interests and ambitions. From this point of view an organisation is often specified as the communicator in a ‘battle for the hearts and minds’ of target audiences such as citizens or government in light of counter claims-making activities by other stakeholders and the media for example (Gouldson et al. 2007). An organisation’s commercial interests may therefore dictate that risk communication is utilised in a wish to smooth the path of a potentially controversial new product to market by co-opting stakeholders into decisions, or by assuaging public concerns in the face of criticism from NGOs, the media or other interested parties. For such uses the organisation in question is no doubt attributed to be the most direct beneficiary of risk communication, and it is largely from within this frame that risk communication has been admonished for helping organisations to reach instrumental objectives particularly if it is at the expense of others. However, in so much as risk communication can be conceived as an instrumental resource it can quite clearly be deployed by host of different individuals, groups and organisations for a variety of particular ends. The success of organisations like Greenpeace International in raising awareness and amplifying the controversy that has surrounded the disposal of Brent Spa, global warming or the commercial development of genetically modified food crops and other such campaigns is a testament to this fact (see for example Bakir 2005).

Finally, the substantive imperative advocates that risk communication should be utilised to generate improvements in understanding and the quality of knowledge available when making risk related decisions. Proponents of this position contend that it may be possible to generate better decision outcomes by generating insights from a variety of sources with different points of view that might not otherwise have been accounted for via a purely technocratic or individualistic approach (e.g. Wynne 1989). The substantive argument therefore often goes hand-in-hand with the deliberative ideals identified above and reflects a concern that risk communication may play a crucial role in attempting to close critical gaps between what is known by different actors about a particular risk in question and what needs to be known. The substantive argument may however also become aligned with instrumental concerns, but in contrast to purely instrumental concerns the substantive imperative for risk communication is conventionally portrayed as motivated by the wish to achieve outcomes that favour the general interest rather than self-serving ends (Stirling 2005). One stated goal of organisational risk communication preferred by some academics in these respects is to help people in society to make health risk choices wisely either through education or the advocacy of certain behaviours in citizens (Bostrom 2003). This may occur when trying to help people put new risk information into perspective both for themselves and for others so as to improve their understanding and the quality of risk decisions for example (see Ropeik and Slovic 2006).

The nuances of the substantive position also come sharply into focus in view of the use of risk communication for the resolution of risk conflicts. For example, Fischhoff (1995) has advocated that one objective of organisational risk communication is to facilitate a focus within society on ‘fewer, but better’ risk conflicts that include the consideration of both social concerns as well as scientific principles (see also Renn 1998). The implication here is that risk communication can serve the general good by providing a means not only for parties to focus their attention and resources on what matters most, but also in helping them to figure out what matters most. From a substantive point of view the purpose of risk communication in these respects is the establishment of understanding, not necessarily conflict resolution. As Krauss and Morsella (2000) contend given a genuine desire to resolve conflict good communication may help people to achieve that aim through facilitating better understanding, but it cannot guarantee that conflict will be resolved or even ameliorated. Even when people caught up in conflict understand the situation at hand as well as the perspectives, intentions and motivations of one another there may still be legitimate fundamental reasons for disagreement. But where as in the words of Mahatma Ghandi ‘honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress’, poor communication can lead to misunderstanding, which may instead increase the likelihood that conflict will be exacerbated or misplaced (Krauss and Morsella 2000).

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